The Northwestern region of Costa Rica is renowned for its dramatic contrast in topography. Mountain ranges, volcanoes, lakes, rivers, and fertile plains support numerous varieties of bird and wildlife, and each offers different types of activities: visitors come to hike, kayak, horse ride, fish, and climb.
The two , or mountain ranges, are very different from each other. The Cordillera Tilarán has rolling mountains that used to be covered in cloud forests; those remaining are protected reserves of which the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve is the most popular. It offers nature trails, horse riding, and canopy tours. The Cordillera de Guanacaste is a rugged and impressive string of volcanoes, some protected within national parks.
Between the ranges are Lake Arenal and the nearby active Arenal Volcano, as well as the surrounding hot springs. Further north, in the tropical humidity of the lowland plains, lies the remote wildlife refuge of Caño Negro, a vast wetlands area that is one of the best places in the Americas to see river wildlife, including numerous birds, mammals, and reptiles. The fertile plains are dotted with a mixture of agricultural fields, cattle ranches, and expanses of protected areas serviced by a maze of streams and rivers
The Arenal Volcano National Park is situated in what is known as the 'Energetic Heart of Costa Rica'. At its centre is the 5,356 foot (1,633m) Volcán Arenal, a typically cone-shaped volcano despite being highly active, with some huge eruptions and larva flows that killed thousands of people in 1968. Although perpetually active, the degree of activity is unpredictable, ranging from rumbling and ground shaking to a smouldering red glow best visible at night. Sometimes visitors are treated to a fiery display of red-hot rocks being thrown into the air. The park has some good trails that go through forests, passing through the area that was flattened in the 1968 eruption, or across lava fields, but fences are in place to stop people from venturing too far up the dangerous slopes. There is also a good chance of seeing some of the wildlife in the forest. The Visitor Centre has video displays of the volcano's more exciting activity. It is not possible to stay overnight in the park or visit it after dark unless on one of the night tours from Fortuna.
Fortuna is the nearest village to the spectacular Volcán Arenal. It has uninterrupted views of the volcano and provides a comfortable base for visiting the national park and other attractions. There are many tour operators in town offering night trips to see the red-hot volcanic activity from up close. Other tours combine luxurious soak in the hot springs while taking in the astounding show of bright red larva coursing down the slopes. You don't need a guide to enter the park and hike in the area but you must have a guide to visit at night. Trips to the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, and the Arenal Butterfly Conservatory, are also popular excursions, as is horse riding to the nearby waterfalls and their pools. Close to Fortuna is Lake Arenal, a picturesque lake offering watersports, fishing, and stunning scenery. There are also some rivers close by: the Pena Blancas River is great for relaxing cruises, and, for the more adventurous, the Rio Toro River boasts some impressive white water rafting through deep gorges and big rapids (class 3 - 4).
Monteverde is a small community scattered along several kilometres of road that leads to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve. Originally bought for dairy farming, the reserve today is an integral part of Costa Rican society, known especially for their distinctive cheese that is sold throughout the country. After more hectares were added, it became the famous cloud forest reserve now so popular with tourists today. The village of Santa Elena is the closest settlement to the reserve and has a cloud forest reserve of its own, although much less visited. Monteverde has a number of other attractions, such as the Butterfly Garden, the Serpentarium, a cheese factory, and art galleries. CASEM Handicrafts Cooperative, made up of 140 local artisans, sells handmade goods and the profits go towards supporting the local community. There is also the Hummingbird Gallery near the entrance to the reserve that has feeders attracting several species of hummingbird. Several nature and hiking trails allow visitors to amble through coffee and banana plantations or up onto the hilltops for views of the cloud forest. On a clear day, you might get a chance to spy Arenal Volcano, and lots of birds and wildlife.
Located 135 miles (220km) northwest of San Jose, Liberia is not so much a tourist destination as a convenient travel hub and gateway to the stunning beaches of Northwest Costa Rica. Liberia is often called 'La Ciudad Blanca' (the White City) because of the pale gravel used to make its roads and the prevalence of white colonial buildings. One of its main attractions is the nearby Rio Negro Hot Spring. In fact, most of its prime attractions are located just outside of Liberia. It's ideally situated to explore some of the stunning national parks in Costa Rica, including Rincón de la Vieja Volcano and Santa Rosa National Park. Home to Costa Rica's second largest international airport, many tourists travel through Liberia on their Costa Rica holiday. As it receives so many tourists in transit, Liberia is home to many great tour companies who offer a variety of trips and activities for travellers. You could easily spend a whole holiday in Liberia if you use it as a base for day trips out into the surrounding areas.
Things to see and do in Northwest Costa Rica revolve mainly around exploring the stunning variety of natural landscapes and a number of world-class wildlife refuges and national parks. The region is scenically spectacular with volcanoes, forests, lakes, rivers and fertile lowlands, interspersed with small villages. Fortuna and Liberia are both good bases from which to explore the numerous attractions of Northwest Costa Rica, and the Monteverde community is an attraction in itself.
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve is one of the most famous attractions of Costa Rica and many visitors travel to the country primarily to experience this magical, misty forest world. The other well-known park in the region is the Arenal Volcano National Park which attracts visitors from all over the globe with its visibly active volcano. In both parks there are a variety of hikes and activities to be enjoyed.
Although these two reserves are deservedly world-renowned, there are many other wildlife refuges and national parks in the Northwest. Santa Rosa National Park is an important sea turtle nesting area and a wonderful place to see Costa Rican animals in their natural habitat. The Bolanos Island National Wildlife Refuge is an island where a variety of seabirds, including pelicans, nest, and it has been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. White Cliffs National Wildlife Refuge and Junquillal Bay National Wildlife Refuge are two more popular wilderness areas.
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